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The interest in online courses is high. According to the Babson Survey Research Group 7.1 million students took at least one online course in 2012. As schools work to improve their online classes and degree programs to deliver higher quality, more students may decide they want to complete their post-secondary education online.

Students who have never taken an online course or degree program, however, may not understand everything it entails. Testing is different. Contacting a professor is different. Contact with fellow students is different. Before enrolling in an online class or degree program, students should know what to expect. In this article WorldWideLearn took a closer look at the ways online courses differ from on-campus classes.

Synchronous or asynchronous meeting times

Many students enroll in online courses because they require the flexibility of being able to sign into the class on their own time. Not every online course, however, allows for this flexibility. There are two different types of online class, and knowing which one you are signing up for is important if you are searching for flexibility.

Synchronous classes

online coursesSynchronous courses ask students to log into the class at a specified time. The professor will lecture live and students ask questions and are called on to provide answers in real time. Participation in this type of course is done almost exclusively online, as class times are specified, notes are taken during live lectures and questions are asked during the class.

Since the real-time, interactive element is so important to the synchronous format, students should get confirmation on the types of hardware and software they need. A plug-in microphone may be required if using a computer that doesn't have a built-in mic, while an updated version of Flash and reliable broadband connection are typically needed to run a real-time video stream reliably.

Both traditional and for-profit colleges and universities offer synchronous courses. Professors may have notes available for download later, but if you miss a synchronous class it is like missing a traditional course. Some of the information and interaction is gone for good.

Asynchronous classes

Asynchronous courses allow students to log in and watch videos and read lecture notes at their own leisure. While there is no specified time to enter the course assignments, quizzes and tests still have solid due dates. Since you don't need to log in at specific times to attend class you can copy or download lecture notes to read later. The videos for these courses can be done in many different formats, including Youtube videos, embedded recordings on the delivery platform for the online course, or downloadable through iTunes.

Dr. John Mayer, an associate professor who teaches online courses at the University of Nuevo Leon in Mexico said that "the model that I find that works best is that I start and end my classes live at the University, then the class meetings in between are online. I also like to have the students muted while I lecture with a platform in which they have to type in their questions as the class proceeds."

Contact with the teacher

online courseChester Goad, an administrator at the Tennessee Technological University, spoke about his experiences as both an instructor and student in online classes. When it came to instruction, Goad felt that students "deserve, quick responses to their questions, and as much interaction as students receive in traditional courses." This is the only way, in his opinion, "for an online course to be effective and beneficial to students."

When taking online classes during his doctoral program at the University of Cumberland in Kentucky, Goad found that what he enjoyed the most were synchronous courses.

"We all had microphones (and cams if we wanted to use them), and all of us met 'together' at the same time. The platform that was used allowed the instructor to present slides or projects just as if we were sitting in class. Additionally, the instructor could click and drag class members into chat room groups for group work and discussions, and the instructors could rotate from room to room, just as if they were strolling by each group's 'table' in the traditional classroom. That kind of interaction was meaningful, and kept us all motivated to complete our doctoral work."

Mike Ryan, department head of Economics and Finance at the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia, said that he found that scheduling specific meeting times for his students did not work very well.

"For the most part, students enrolled in my online classes have time commitments that include work, family, and other class obligations. As such, when I have scheduled online sessions, students find it difficult to attend even if there are three or four time options available. For this reason, I have focused much more on asynchronous communication."

There are many different methods of contacting an instructor while taking an online course. Be sure to find out how the teacher schedules their online office hours, and how often they will be able to get back to you when communicating an issue, a question or a concern.

Delivery methods

The delivery system for an on-campus class is simple: a teacher lectures, students take notes, ask questions and there are tests across the course of the semester that are taken in class. It's a little more difficult when taking a class online, as the central location for the course is the Internet.

Students taking online courses may not reside in the same state or even the same country, but they all expect the same ability to access their course materials. Thanks to an online delivery system students can find syllabi, class information, lecture notes, videos, discussion forums and tests housed on a platform built for the school. Students can also upload assignments through the platform once they are completed.

Some schools have their own hosting platforms that they have set up themselves. Others use commercial hosting platforms such as Blackboard or WebCT.

wwl logoSoftware in Focus
We took a quick look at the history behind the software.

Blackboard: Founded in 1997, Blackboard is an e-learning company that publishes a variety of educational software, including Blackboard Learn, an e-learning platform with features like student chat, discussion forums and learning modules to access assignments through.

WebCT: Previously a competitor to Blackboard, WebCT was acquired by Blackboard, Inc. in 2006. Offering many of the same features as Blackboard Learn, the official plan, according to Blackboard, is for WebCT to be gradually integrated into the main brand.

Testing online

Taking a course online doesn't mean an escape from tests, but the way they're handled is different from testing in on-campus courses.

Many online classes administer their exam through the online platform that hosts the course. The exams are usually open book and open notes since there is almost no way right now for an educator to stop students from using them anyway.

Some companies are developing technologies that will curb cheating in online courses. These include eye monitors on computers that follow where students are looking to keep them from using notes or textbooks if a teacher decides not to allow their use. There are a few technologies students may have to deal with on a regular basis:

  • Turnitin.com -- It can be tempting to use the thoughts and ideas of others to help write an essay, especially when students are taking four or five courses at the same time and have multiple assignments due each week. Students in English courses may not be able to get away with this any longer thanks to Turnitin. This is a website where teachers can take a paper that has been submitted by a student and check it against any writing that has been posted on the Internet. Did Bertrand Russell have something poignant to say about The Canterbury Tales? Students will have to make sure they cite him accurately now because of Turnitin.
  • Kryterion Global Testing Solutions -- Some online classes may ask students to take tests and exams on campus. Others may ask students to go to a testing center so an exam can be proctored to limit the chance to cheat. What if a student does not live near their college campus or near a testing center? Kryterion Global Testing Solutions is looking to limit the hassle that some students may encounter if an online class has this requirement. Kryterion can link through a student's existing webcam and microphone on their personal computer while they take a test. This allows Kryterion's online proctors to monitor their behavior while taking a test, thus cutting down on opportunities to cheat.

Anti-cheating methods

Until more technologies are built out and fully implemented, schools are doing other things to keep students from cheating. Some online courses require students to find a testing center and a proctor who can administer the test. In order to sign up for certain online classes students may be required to go to the schools' campus and take any exams in a classroom. A 2013 paper from Pearson, a publisher of educational materials, gives a variety of recommendations for reducing online exam cheating:

  • Making exams available only for a set, short time interval
  • Requiring students to scan their scratch work and email them to the instructor
  • Have at least one essay question

These are factors a prospective student should take into account when considering the logistics of their online courses.

Contact with fellow students

Group projects are a big part of learning, even in an online class. Like contacting a professor, students can use different methods to get in touch to complete group work or ask each other questions. Schools usually offer students email addresses that are attached to them while they are enrolled in school. This can allow each student to contact their classmates without having to for personal email addresses.

Another method of contact is through dedicated forums on the hosting platform for the online class. Teachers can set up a place for each group to ask questions, place completed work, or just chat about the project. Skype is also a popular way for students to contact each other without having to give personal email addresses or phone numbers.

If you're interested in learning more about online courses or in signing up for an online degree program you can request information from one of the schools below. You can find out how a class works, how tests will be administered, and how you can stay in contact with a teacher or your fellow students.

Sources:

Interview with Chester Goad, Director of Disability Services and Graduate Instructor at Tennessee Technological University, conducted by Jamar Ramos on July 22, 2014

Interview with Dr. John Mayer, associate professor at the University of Nuevo Leon, conducted by Jamar Ramos on July 22, 2014

Interview with Mike Ryan, department head of Economics and Finance at the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia, conducted by Jamar Ramos on July 23, 2014

"Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States," Babson Survey Research Group, 2013, http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/highered.html

"Controlling Cheating in Online Courses: A Primer," Pearson, 2013, http://www.pearsonmylabandmastering.com/northamerica/assets/pdf/controlling-cheating-in-online-courses.pdf

"Online Proctoring | Kryterion," Kryterion Global Testing Solutions, August 4, 2014, http://kryteriononline.com/?page_id=134

"Turnitin - Originality Check, Online Grading & Peer Review," Turnitin, August 4, 2014, http://turnitin.com/